Turn with me to Luke 2 and our text for this evening. Our series of sermons is based on the text of the Nine Lessons and Carols service; our text this evening is Luke 2 and verses 8 through 16. Well, actually we’ll take it just a little bit further than that, and probably go down all the way to verse 20, at least in our comments. But we’ll read from verse 8 through verse 16. Before we do so, let's ask the Lord's blessing. Let's pray.
Our Father and our God, we come again into Your presence. We are wholly dependent upon You. Without You we can do nothing. Even the exercise of prayer and of reading the Scriptures without the aid and ministry of Your Spirit falls flat upon its face. So come, O Lord, and illumine now the words of Scripture, and grant to us, we pray, in Your grace and mercy, a word in season: a word to help, a word to instruct, a word to encourage, a word to rebuke, a word to motivate and challenge, a word to draw us after Yourself. All this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear now the word of God.
”And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’
And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.”
[And then in the verses that follow, of course, we read of Mary's response in verse 19, how she pondered, or treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.]
I think I've always loved this time of year, and as a little boy loved it for all the wrong reasons, I suppose - for sentimental reasons - and I suppose many of us, though with [tape skip] ...less so of those times in our youth when Christmas meant something else. [tape skip]
So here in Luke 2 and beginning at verse 8, the story of the shepherds on the hillside in Bethlehem, this is the seventh in a series of ten stories or tableaux that Luke gives us in his depiction of the coming of Jesus into the world. The previous story, “story six” if you like, told us how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem: the political red tape much then as it is now, in the different provinces and vassal kingdoms of the Roman Empire requiring that Joseph, being of the house of David, should return to Bethlehem in order for the census to take place.
“Story seven” — this particular story that is before us tonight — tells us that the shepherds knew where to find Jesus. They knew exactly where to go. An angel had told them — and, some have conjectured, the manger may have belonged to the shepherds. It was perhaps their manger, after all.
There are some curiosities in the story. I am tempted to call this section, since this is Christmas, after a Dickens novel, The Curiosity Shop! First of all, that the shepherds were the only ones to hear and see the angels. It's a little curious. Then again, when they visit Jesus, they glorify God, but we never hear of them again. This is also a little curious. And the bystanders who heard the shepherds’ story, who wondered — and presumably went and told others — but we never hear from any of them again, either.
And we're told Mary's reaction in verse 19, and there's a similar reaction in verse 33 after the birth; but ever since the annunciation of the birth to Mary by Gabriel back in chapter 1 of Luke, nothing more has been said to her. For nine months, no instruction and no accounts of Mary's conversation with Elizabeth, for that matter, or with her own mother. (Those of you who are women, of course, and who have had children, have experienced the joy and sometimes less than the joy of speaking to your mother or perhaps your mother-in-law about your first pregnancy — all the little details...which in my school, was meant for the women-folk!) There's none of that. It's somewhat curious. For nine months now she's heard nothing. No instruction, no angelic instruction — what she should eat, the vitamins that she should take to avoid this or that or the other. After all, she's bearing the Lord Jesus!
And the house of Nazareth — it was not a palace, but Joseph was a carpenter. Presumably it was perhaps nicer than most, but a manger in Bethlehem — that she was not prepared for! So let us go, then, to Bethlehem, and see this great sight.
I. The shepherds.
Three things I want us to note tonight: first of all, shepherds. Shepherds watching, watching over their flocks by night, as every schoolboy...we sang carols, of course, in school in the morning assembly...a requirement in British education, technically, to this day...since the Education Act of 1947. “While shepherds washed their socks by night,” we sang, as naughty school children!
Well, shepherds watching their flocks by night...(I have to, even to this day, be careful as I sing those lines!) Some have thought these shepherds represent some kind of ideal existence, some kind of rustic nobility or rural charm, a sort of restoration of Eden. Some of the great painters — Constable, Reubens — have painted these beautiful portraits of the shepherds in grand nobility. Others have conjectured that the reason for the appearance of the shepherds is to depict what will be the Good Shepherd who will be born in the stable in Bethlehem. Others, that this is Bethlehem, the place of David's lineage, who was — yes — a shepherd.
But I rather think that what we're to see here is something else. Shepherds were despised in the first century. For centuries prior to the birth of Jesus there was a residue of prejudice against shepherds. Shepherds were thought to be...in the Mishnah, that is, the written down but previously oral tradition of the Pharisees, shepherds were disenfranchised. They had no civil rights. They could not be witnesses in a court of law. They could not be elected to any office of state. They were mistrusted; they were thought on the whole to be a bunch of thieves. (That may be in part true — it's hard to tell one sheep from another!) And in another work by a more recent twentieth century scholar, of all things, dealing with Jerusalem and beyond, one scholar says that the rabbis asked with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain this.
For His own glory. Once again in the outworking of the story of redemption God is saying ‘Not your way, but My way.’ As Paul expounds, we have this treasure in clay pots, in earthen jars, in order that the glory, the magnificence, might be His. Romans says this, too, it was part of His self-emptying. Not that Christ should lose any glory through it, but only that for a time it should be concealed, concealed in the incarnation depicted to these lowly shepherds.
Several things about these shepherds: their unquestioning obedience. In verse 16, they “go with haste to Bethlehem.” No questions of Gabriel, if it was Gabriel...no questions of the angels, the mighty host that appear — they simply do what they've been asked to do. I don't know about you, but if I met an archangel and if I met a host of angels, I would be afraid. To whom was their enthusiastic witness in verse...was it to people already gathered at the stable that we are reading this of? Or, did the shepherds leave the stable, as is often thought to be the case, and speak the words of what they had seen and heard to people in Bethlehem? They evangelize, in other words. They speak about that which they have seen and heard. (That's what evangelism is, by the way. Evangelism stems from a full heart. It stems from a heart that loves Jesus, that encounters Jesus in worship and devotion moment by moment.)
Wasn't it so very fitting that one of the hymns that we sang at the funeral this afternoon here in this building was I Love to Tell the Story of Jesus and His love? Well, the shepherds loved to tell the story of Jesus and His love.
And then, their heartfelt worship, because they returned in verse 20 praising and glorifying God. “Praising and glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” They turned it all into worship. They turned it all into praise. They were careful, at the end of the day, to render thanks unto the Lord for all His marvelous doings and grace. Shepherds watching....
II. The angels praising.
And then, angels praising. In verse 11 we read of the angel of the Lord who appears to the shepherds as they were watching over their flocks by night. Was it Gabriel, the archangel who had appeared to Elizabeth and Zacharias (or, at least, to Zacharias), the archangel who had appeared to Mary, announcing the birth nine months previous? Perhaps. We’re not told. Perhaps enough attention has been given to Gabriel already, but now it's time for some anonymity here because the focus is not Gabriel, but Jesus. And then a host of angels, a mighty throng of angels, an entire collection of angels, ministering spirits sent forth to serve those who inherit salvation.
Do you notice they’re always present whenever God does something redemptively significant? At creation, in Job 38 we read that they were shouting for joy when God created the world. In establishing the covenant line, angels appeared to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In the whole story of the exodus, Paul tells us that the Law was given through angels by the hand of a mediator. [It's one of those texts that, when we see Paul, we’ll ask him what did he really mean by that text — it's a difficult text, but this much we certainly know, that angels were involved in the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.] We think of Elijah, Elisha, at Dothan, seeing a whole host of angels; at the time of the exile, with Daniel; there were angels present at the birth of Jesus; they were with the apostles...when they imprisoned Peter and John, angels came and opened the door.
Peter tells us they long to peer into the story of redemption, that they long to turn over, as you might turn over a gem in a light, and see the incandescence of the glory of the gospel. At Calvary Jesus said He could have signaled twelve legions of angels to help Him, and if a legion has 6,000 men in it, that's 72,000 angels could have come to His aid and to His bidding at Calvary.
The choristers of heaven, the choir of heaven — how they loved to sing! They burst into song, “Glory to God in the highest!” They sing The Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 1: “Glory to God in the highest!” That's what it's all about...the birth of Jesus, the story of redemption...that which God has been doing from the Garden of Eden until now. It's all about His glory, that's the focus of it.
“And on earth, peace, good will towards....” (well, let's read the New American Standard Version rendition of that) “...peace among men with whom He is pleased.” That's a slightly different rendition to most of our Christmas carols, you understand. It's a more Calvinistic rendition; it's peace to those upon whom God wills to show His peace, those who have found grace in the eyes of the Lord. It's glory to God because...well, because of the gospel. Because of the gospel, because He has found a way to be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.
Peace on earth. Some commentators have suggested that the original Hellenistic readers of the Gospel of Luke would have immediately have thought of Augustus, the Roman emperor in whose honor the calendar was changed so as to begin on his birthday — he was not, of course, the bringer of peace. But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the One who brings peace, who reconciles sinners to a holy God. And these angels burst into song.
III. Well, shepherds watching and witnessing, and angels praising, and...well, we can't leave this out: Mary pondering.
She pondered all these things in her heart — what the shepherds had told her in verse 11. You know, that's the first thing Mary has heard since the time Gabriel announced the birth. That's a long time to be wondering who this child in her womb really was, this child that she has by now nursed. And the shepherds come and tell her this story of the angels, the archangel: “For unto us a child is born...unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Doesn't that remind you of the text that we've been looking at in recent days in Isaiah 9?
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end.” On the throne of David...” [— yes, David the king — born in Bethlehem —] “...and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
And I wonder, is that what came to Mary's mind as she heard the story of the shepherds? I wonder what she pondered. It's a word in Greek that is focused on the use of the mind and the memory especially. I wonder what came to her memory.
The answer, I think, lies in The Magnificat, the song that she sings in response to all of these things. She pondered the story that God had brought into the world from Genesis 3:15, perhaps, the seed of the woman that would crush the head of Satan. She pondered, perhaps, what was the point of Abraham offering Isaac and God coming and stopping that sacrifice and providing a lamb caught in the thicket in its place. I wonder did she ponder the significance of some of the Messianic Psalms. I wonder did she ponder, as The Magnificat seems to tell us, of her own involvement in that story: that God has regarded the lowly of this world; that God would use her — yes, sinner as she was...fallen daughter of Adam as she was; that God would employ her in the story of redemption, in the deliverance of sinners from the curse of Adam to bring us, you and I who believe in Jesus Christ, to bring us to glory.
I wonder did she ponder...you know, Calvin says if we are wise, this ought to be the principal occupation, the supreme interest of our lives, to think over the works of God. And Calvin says that it didn't begin to make sense to Mary until she brought all the strands of it together, because there are so many strands to the work of God, and it's in bringing that together, beginning to discern the hand of providence down through the centuries in the involvement of her own life in the fulfillment of that promise. And it begins to make sense, and it begins to dawn on her the significance of what God was doing.
And I really don't think that she pondered much about herself. I really think it was this little child that she pondered. She held him in her arms; fed him at her breast. Did all the things — yes, all the things — that you do with a little baby. Holding a little infant, warm and moving and...what is that? Fifteen inches? Sixteen inches long? What does C.S. Lewis say in The Last Battle? From Lucy — Queen Lucy? “In our world, too, a stable once held something that was bigger than the whole world.” God contracted to a span, without losing any of His deity; God and man, God and the little baby in hypostatic union. There begins the mystery. There begins some pondering.
And as you ponder that you have to say with Augustine: “I see the depths, but I cannot see the bottom.”
And as we approach Christmas in just a few days time, that's the mystery of godliness: that God was manifest in the flesh. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, again, as we think through these very familiar stories, we pray that something of the incomprehensible mystery, the unfathomable and deep, deep, thought that the second person of the Trinity became a little infant lying in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem, in all of His frailty, in all of His smallness.... And we pray, O Lord, that as we move from Bethlehem to Calvary to behold there that same infant, now grown fully man, dying accursed for us, who knew no sin, that we might be reckoned the righteousness of God in Him. Accept the praise of our hearts. Accept our worship, we pray. Help us to join our voices with angels above to give You glory forever. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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